Kevin Mazur/WireImage
November 20, 2014 04:40 PM

On the surface, their story reads like something out of a sophisticated 1930s romantic comedy: the urbane stage director, at a low point in his life, meets a younger but highly accomplished and gorgeous journalist. And sparks fly.

Only, this was the mid-’80s, and for real.

Mike Nichols, already a lion of Broadway and Hollywood, was 54, and Diane Sawyer was 40 and a correspondent on CBS’s 60 Minutes, when he first set eyes on her “on the Concorde – if you want to talk about glamorous,” Nichols told the Hollywood Reporter in 2012.

As it would happen, their courtship traveled at supersonic speed, too. When they met they were both in Paris and about to head back to the U.S.

“She was hiding in the [airport] lounge because she hadn’t done her hair or something. I found her and said, ‘You’re my hero.’ And she said: ‘No, you’re my hero. Do you ever have lunch?’ ” Nichols, who died Wednesday at age 83, recalled for the trade publication. “She wanted to interview me for 60 Minutes. I pretended that I was up for it, and we had about 14 lunches.”

“I knew before he spoke, I knew before he was walking across the room I knew something was happening, and maybe it’s that beautiful hallmark. Cue the violins?” Sawyer recalled for Harper’s Bazaar last year. “But I knew my life was changing.”

Nichols, who at the time already had been married (and divorced) three times and had three grown children, would admit, “I had loved other women before, but not like this.”

“He had really hit a wall,” Meryl Streep, a frequent Nichols collaborator (they were set to begin yet another project, an HBO adaptation of the Terrence McNally play Master Class, in January), told the Reporter of the time Nichols and Sawyer met.

“He’d had a sort of breakdown, and then he met Diane, and everything changed. Before, he was always the smartest and most brilliant person in the room – and he could be the meanest, too – but now, that’s just an arrow in his creative arsenal.”

“He loved Diane utterly, immeasurably, magically,” Julia Roberts said in a statement to PEOPLE on Thursday, as the world was mourning the loss of Nichols, who himself told Vanity Fair in 1994, “True love made Pinocchio a real boy. It really happened, because she loves me and accepts things about me I can’t imagine anyone accepting.”

Nichols and Sawyer married on Martha’s Vineyard on April 29, 1988 – and ever after were one of New York’s reigning power couples, as well as most private, even to one another, it seems.

“My husband has said even he doesn’t know my politics,” Sawyer told the Ladies Home Journal for a cover story this past February.

“In the nonromantic-compliment category that’s a good one,” she conceded, along with her admission that Nichols is “much more romantic than I am. He puts little notes in my sock drawer or in my suitcase before I leave for a work trip.”

She also said, “I think one of the romantic things is simply the way he reaches for my hand all the time. We rarely fight, and I remember once when we were arguing he stopped in the middle of it and said, ‘Well, this is sort of fun, too.’ And it was!”

Nichols was impressed with his wife’s “utter lack of vanity,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 1996. “She’ll get up in the morning and she’s out of the house in five minutes in my jacket.”

And despite his and his wife’s reputations as New York sophisticates, Nichols told EW, “Our best time ever was driving across the country about six years ago. We went from one barbecue place to another.”

Their residences included a townhouse in Manhattan and other homes in Santa Barbara, Connecticut and Martha’s Vineyard. “People seemed surprised to see Diane pouring iced tea for everybody,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1994.

Her domestic abilities aside, Nichols said, “She is the kindest, smartest, most beautiful woman I’ve known. I love her entirely.”

Then perhaps one of the secrets of their marriage was that she was so easily able to return the compliment.

As Sawyer once summed up her husband to PEOPLE: “He’s generous and adventurous and a little wild and utterly kind. It’s that combination of something you’re completely sure of and something dangerous and interesting. And he’s also the funniest man on the face of the earth.”

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